Home/Daniel Larison/Rubio’s Knee-Jerk Interventionist Isolationism on Syria

Rubio’s Knee-Jerk Interventionist Isolationism on Syria

Marco Rubio is a quick study. He has been in the Senate for just three months, and he has already learned John McCain’s art of reckless moral posturing as a substitute for foreign policy argument:

As ill-advised as it was to restore diplomatic relations with Syria by sending an American ambassador to Damascus last year, we should now sever ties and recall the ambassador at once. While Syria is already under heavy U.S. sanctions as a designated state sponsor of terror, we should expand sanctions to include persons identified as authorizing, planning, or participating in deplorable human rights violations against unarmed civilians. Our partners in Europe, Turkey, and the Arab Gulf share many of our interests in Syria and play a large role in that country, and the president must put the full diplomatic weight of the United States behind an effort to convince them to adopt meaningful economic and diplomatic sanctions targeting Assad and his enablers in the regime.

The last two of these recommendations are debatable on practical grounds. Will targeted sanctions change regime behavior? It seems unlikely, so the purpose of imposing these sanctions is simply to indicate displeasure. That’s all very well, but when has isolating a regime ever made it more cooperative or well-behaved? Is it possible to organize a regional sanctions regime? Why is Turkey going to join in such an effort when it has gone out of its way to oppose sanctions on one of its other trading partners, namely Iran?

It is the call for recalling the ambassador and cutting diplomatic ties that is the most ill-considered and reactive of these demands. Marc Lynch seems to agree with Rubio on some of these other ideas, but even he sees that recalling our ambassador would be foolish. If the goal were to cut the U.S. off from the protesters, whom Rubio would have us support, recalling the ambassador would be an excellent idea. Lynch writes:

One common demand which the administration should reject is that it withdraw Ambassador Robert Ford from Damascus. That demand has been most forcefully made by the same people who fought tooth and nail to prevent an Ambassador from going to Syria in the first place. Doing so would be a symbolic gesture with real costs. The U.S. has few points of contact into Syrian civil society, partly due to the reality of crushing Syrian authoritarian rule and partly due to the long years during which the U.S. Embassy stood empty. We would be far better off right now if Ambassador Ford had been able to establish his presence in Damascus much earlier, instead of being held up by hawkish Congressional skeptics of engagement. There has never been a more crucial time to have high quality representation in Damascus, somebody who is able to communicate both with the Asad regime and with as many parts of Syrian society as possible. Withdrawing him now would be a self-defeating, pointless gesture which would actively undermine America’s ability to respond effectively to a fast-changing situation.

Then again, self-defeating, pointless gestures are the sort of gestures that interventionists such as Rubio tend to prefer. Actually, they’re not completely pointless. They do allow the people advocating these gestures to claim that they are “taking a stand,” which is half the reason why these people propose the gestures. It is a secondary consideration whether the gestures serve any practical purpose or advance the larger policy that the advocates claim to support. What matters more is that the U.S. not “taint” itself by maintaining diplomatic representation there, despite the fact that keeping the ambassador in place could give the U.S. more options to aid the opposition or lobby the government. As usual, many of the people insisting that we “do something” in Syria would like to take away as many political and diplomatic tools as possible so that “doing something” is reduced to policies aimed at isolating and penalizing regimes. It doesn’t seem to bother them that such policies hardly ever produce the desired results, and instead tend to make the opposition to a regime weaker than it already is. Calls for sanctions are little more than automatic reactions that people engage by force of habit more than any consideration of whether sanctions stand any chance of restraining the regime in question.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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